Theophany in the Byzantine Catholic Church is a fixed (immovable date) Holy Day of obligation on January 6. This is one of the MAJOR Feasts in the Eastern rite of the Catholic Church.
Theophany follows in succession: the Nativity of Our Lord (December 25), the Synaxis of the Theotokos (December 26), St. Stephen Protomartyr (December 27), and the Circumcision of Our Lord & Commemoration of St. Basil the Great Archbishop (January 1).
This holy day is one of the earliest Great Feasts of the Eastern churches, dating back to the 2nd century, with a significance attributed to it greater than Christmas. The feast commemorates Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. The literal translation of the word Theophany is manifestation of God. It is the manifestation of Christ’s Divinity in the revelation of the Holy Trinity. Belief in the doctrine of the Trinity is what identifies all Christians as “Christian”.
Theophany in the Eastern churches is associated with spiritual enlightenment, renewal of all creation, and most importantly, the sanctification of the Jordan water, as in the water for all to be saved through baptism. Baptism is victory over the darkness of sin, in which the elements of light and water are the visible outward symbols of spiritual illumination, purification and cleansing.
An alternate name sometimes used interchangeably with Theophany is Epiphany. This also refers to a manifestation, in this case the prefix “epi” meaning above, as manifestation from above. The primary focus of Epiphany in the Latin rite differs from the primary focus of Epiphany or Theophany in the Eastern rite. The term Epiphany is mainly associated in the Latin rite church with the appearance of the Magi to the Christ Child. Many simply refer to it as “Three Kings”. The Roman Catholic church adopted the feast from the Eastern origins of the Church, and in current practice in the United States celebrates on the Sunday between Jan 2 and 8.
The Eastern churches have retained the significance of the feast as described by the early church Fathers (Christ’s baptism) and keep it as an immovable feast, always on January 6. In fact, all feast days in Eastern churches are celebrated on the exact date and never moved to a different day of the week. Among the church fathers, St. John Chrysostom and St. Clement of Alexandria refer to Theophany in association with Christ’s baptism. It is interesting to note that at one time both the Nativity and Baptism of Christ were celebrated together on January 6; then later in development the feasts were separated with the Nativity moving to December 25.
Theophany is a holy day that reminds us of our eternal salvation and the solid foundations of our faith. We hear the words chanted in the Gospel reading of Matthew 3:16: “After Jesus was baptized, he came directly out of the water. Suddenly the sky opened and he saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and hover over him. With that, a voice from the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on Him.”
It is a tradition in Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches to bless water on the Vigil of the Feast of Theophany and sometimes on the Holy Day itself. The blessing takes place after Divine Liturgy and the elaborate and poetic prayers recited by the priest invoke the Holy Spirit to sanctify and purify the water being blessed. Afterwards the priest blesses all the faithful present and the entire church. Faithful are invited to consume the blessed water with faith, and to take water home for reverent use and to bless their homes.
It is traditional in the Carpatho-Rusyn tradition to bless a nearby river or stream as Christ sanctified all earthly waters and that of the Jordan with his baptism. [See photos and article about our own local river blessing: CLICK HERE]. Another tradition following the Feast of Theophany is for the faithful to request to have their homes blessed by the parish priest. All of these traditions and blessings, when viewed through the eyes of faith, are important means of visibly affirming our belief in the Holy Trinity and God’s ability to transform us.
Excerpt from the Great Blessing of Water (by St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, 634-638) For the complete words of this service, credits to the Metropolitan Cantor Institute of the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, Byzantine Seminary: THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER
Today is the time of feasting, and the ranks of saints and angels have joined us in celebration
Today the grace of the all-holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove comes down upon the waters
Today shines the Sun that never sets, and the world sparkles with the light of the Lord!
Today the moon is bright, together with the earth in the glowing radiance of its beams
Today the brilliant stars adorn the universe with the splendor of their twinkling
Today the clouds from heaven shed upon the human race a shower of justice
Today the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him
Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe, witnesses the condescension of God towards us
Today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies
Today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams
Today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan
Today paradise as been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us
Today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!
Christ is Baptized! In the Jordan!